The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Tartine's Method for Storing Levain

gmvoros's picture

Tartine's Method for Storing Levain

Hello, Everyone:

I am fairly new to bread making and have been working with both the Ken Forkish FLOUR WATER SALT YEAST book and Tartine's Book 3 on using ancient grains. 

I have created a starter using the method described in Tartine: Book No. 3: Modern Ancient Classic Whole. Since it is a two-week long process, I feel the result is precious and want to keep the end product on hand.  The book instructs, "To maintain the leaven for regular use, continue feeding daily as described. . . To save leaven for long periods without use, add enough flour to make a dry paste and keep covered in the refrigerator." 

I can't feed daily because of my job schedule. The instruction to make a paste seems quite vague, when all other instructions have been precise down to the gram. If I add a random quantity of flour to the leaven I want to store, how will I know how much more flour and water to add when I want to revive it?

Thanks for any help anyone can offer!



Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

...for how to maintain your starter. It doesn't matter how you do it as long as you keep it alive and healthy. I can advise you one way but everyone here will have their own way.

So instead of saying you must do this or that I will explain to you my method from which you can learn. You might like it, choose to take elements of it or find a different way that suits you.

I think of my starter as simply a place where I store the yeasts and bacteria. A petri dish. It's not geared for any one recipe, yet! I keep it 100% hydration so I always know how much flour to water there is in any given amount (I used to keep it 70% hydration but it was more difficult to mix with it being wholegrain rye so for ease it's now 100% hydration).

A feed will look like this: 10g starter + 50g water + 50g whole rye flour. Will allow it to bubble up and activate but will refrigerate just before it peaks. This will now last a week or two, or even three, in the fridge. Rye does seem to last longer in the fridge between feeds. I've done wheat before but unless it's lower hydration and caught earlier it tends to need more TLC.

It will now stay in the fridge till the next feed. When it comes to baking i'll dip into it to build levains. These are off-shoot "starters" built more geared for the recipe. This way you can have your starter using one type of flour and at any hydration and build many others to different specs.

When my starter runs low i'll take it out, give it some TLC then return it to the fridge. It's easy and not wasteful.

lesbru's picture

In the first Tartine book, Bread, it's suggested that you keep a small amount (a couple of tbs is fine) of your levain from your last bread making session, to put in the fridge and be your new ongoing starter. If you bake weekly, you can take it out the evening before the evening you plan to make up your new levain and feed it that night and the next morning, keeping it at room temp, to be sure it's active and raring to go. (if you're not baking that week, just take it out and feed it and put it back.) Chad Robertson explains that he likes to work from a young levain and this method keeps it fresh and fruity. I find this effective and trouble free. 

gmvoros's picture

Thanks, Abe and lesbru, for the advice and information.

I have another question. Tartine makes a distinction between "starter," which is the from-scratch mix you start a week before you want to make leaven, feeding every day (and then twice a day two days before you want to make leaven), and then the "leaven" itself, which you actually mix into the flour to make the bread dough. 

When people write about saving their starter, do they mean the "starter," or the "leaven"? (I have saved both, just in case.) 


Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Is what you keep going. Once made you don't have to make another. 

A leaven is a preferment you make with the starter.  

You can keep the starter completely separate  (as most do) or build extra leaven each time and keep some back which now becomes the starter. 

There is some differing opinions on terminology but the process is the same. Just as long as you have a method where you keep some for the next bake you'll never have to go through the process of making another starter from scratch. 

David R's picture
David R

Many (most) of the descriptions I've seen, for the stage you are now at, leave out some crucial information - perhaps because people have forgotten what they really did, or perhaps because of a bit of embarrassment over the fact that what they really did doesn't sound very systematic or methodical.

What people really do in your situation is semi-obsessively watch their starter's progress and condition, like a novice witch who keeps running back to the cauldron and peering inside. ☺️ And if something appears to be going wrong, they wring their hands and scratch their heads and ask a lot of questions, and try to fix the problem. And because once you actually have a healthy starter going it takes some actual work (or some blatant stupidity) to actually kill it outright, most of the time everything works out fine, and the starter and its keeper come to some kind of workable détente, and together they reach a stable routine, one in which the starter stays alive and healthy and the human is no longer inconvenienced by the routine.

In short, now is when you realize that you have this really weird friend who has come to live in your fridge, and who will help you make bread in return for a very limited sort of room-and-board arrangement. And in the first few days and weeks, you'll be constantly checking on him to make sure he's OK, has enough to eat, isn't getting sick, and getting used to his weird habits - but after he's lived at your place for a few months you get kind of blasé about the whole thing.

People looking back on this time in their lives might not want to admit that they started out anxious too, so they tend to emphasize the blasé part. 🙂

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Another great explanation David. 

There are rules. You can also break the rules. But you have to know the rules in order to break them. 

Everyone starts off with a recipe to make a starter and go away with a list of rules on how to maintain it. But as you say, once you've looked after and used a starter for a while you'll find your own method what works for you and your starter. You could say that a relationship between you and your starter also becomes symbiotic.